How To Fish For Great Lakes Salmon in Rivers: Guide Tactics

Great Lakes Salmon Fishing

Anglers around the great lakes have a unique opportunity for great river fishing for salmon with the chance to catch huge salmon from August to November. This article covers my tactics that use when I guide and when I teach anglers how to fish for great lakes salmon in rivers.

If you want to learn how to fish for great lakes salmon in rivers you will need to learn 1 or 2 of the 4 most effective methods for catching salmon which include float fishing, fly fishing, lure fishing, and bottom bouncing. Anglers that know which methods to use in different conditions can greatly increase the amount of fish they catch.

I have been fishing for salmon since I was a teenager and I have been guiding for them for 20 years, I perfected these salmon fishing methods and will share with you how I do it.

My Best Guide Tip For Great Lakes Salmon In Rivers

Learning how to fish for great lakes salmon put this angler onto this big Chinook salmon
One of my clients on his first trip for great lakes salmon. We must have seen 300 fish swim past us and up the rapids in a 7 hour day.

Many anglers fish for great lakes salmon in the rivers, they just do it poorly and the results are often few or no salmon.

GUIDE TIP: If you are going to fish for salmon I highly recommend that you put in a little extra effort into learning how to do it right and do a little extra planning ahead of time so that you have everything you actually need to succeed and that you are set up correctly. Reading this is a good start.

The simple truth of the matter is that most anglers get one or two things wrong when they fish for salmon in rivers and that prevents them from catching fish.

Anglers will use the right float but then have a giant hook that the fish will see, or they will use the wrong bait for the conditions, or they will have a leader that is so thick that the fish will ignore their bait.

Other anglers will have a great setup but then they get a poor presentation or they simply do not know how to cover the water effectively they will struggle to catch salmon. I have seen that one wrong thing can greatly affect the amount of fish you catch, so my best advice to all river anglers is to learn to do everything right.

The guys that are catching all the fish and doing so consistently will have the right gear for salmon fishing, they will have the right line and leader, have a good leader setup, use the right hooks for the size and type of the bait that you are using, they know how to get a great presentation, and they cover the water well. They also know when the salmon run and when to fish.

This article will help you get everything right.

Salmon Species Of The Great Lakes

Other than the Atlantic salmon, most salmon in the great lakes are not a native fish to the great lakes. There are 4 species of salmon that anglers around the great lakes can fish for. Some of these salmon can be found in large numbers are still stocked regularly stocked and others are rare catches from stocking done long ago.

Great Lakes Chinook Salmon

Chinook salmon are the most common salmon around the great lakes and can often be found in large numbers. They are also the largest salmon of the great lakes with average sizes of adult salmon around 25 pounds with some reaching sizes over 40 pounds.

Because of their size and numbers, they are the most sought after salmon species.

Chinook salmon can be found in large numbers in Lake Ontario, Lake Michigan, and Lake Huron but they are also found in Lake Superior and in lessor numbers in Lake Erie.

The Chinook salmon can be caught using any of the methods that I discuss below.

Great Lakes Coho Salmon

Most of the great lakes have Coho salmon in them and the river will get runs of these hard fighting jumping salmon. Coho salmon are smaller in size than Chinook salmon with average sizes around 10 to 15 pounds but they can still reach sizes around 25 pounds.

The runs of coho salmon are also much smaller than the chinook salmon. Coho’s can run from early September to late November.

Coho salmon are sought by anglers fishing lake Ontario where their numbers are the largest. They tend to come up in good numbers and jump a lot when hooked.

Some coho salmon can be found in Lake Huron and Lake Michigan in decent numbers but lake Erie and lake superior have very low numbers of Coho Salmon.

Atlantic Salmon Of The Great Lakes

There has been a push to reintroduce Atlantic salmon to Lake Ontario and Lake Huron but only some rivers are seeing good returns of adult Atlantic salmon.

The best success with stocking and the best numbers of returning adult Atlantic salmon is to the St Mary’s River. Other rivers of Lake Huron and Georgian bay do not have any significant runs of Atlantic salmon and the rivers of lake Ontario have very low returns.

If you want to fish for Atlantic salmon of Lake Ontario you should consider the Salmon River in upstate NY or the Ganaraska River in Ontario Canada.

Atlantic salmon are known to reach sizes over 50 pounds but so far, Atlantic salmon over 30 pounds are rare on the great lakes.

Pink Salmon Of The Great Lakes

Pink salmon is a rare species that are supposed to only run on odd number years like the years of 2021, 2023, 2025, etc.

Although there are some supposed natural reproducing numbers of Pink salmon on all great lakes rivers, most Pink salmon are incidental lucky catches by anglers. Pink salmon is not a species that most anglers would try and target due to their low numbers.

All the fishing methods I discuss below will work for pink salmon

Know Where To Fish For Great Lakes Salmon In Rivers

I have fished for salmon and steelhead from New York state to Michigan and in Ontario Canada.

All the rivers around the great lakes have the potential for some salmon runs, but there are some rivers, creeks, and areas that will have more salmon and they will fish better than others.

Salmon Fishing By State

For the best rivers, tips, best guides, and advice on fishing salmon around the great lakes in specific areas check out these pages:

Gear For Salmon Fishing Great Lakes Rivers

The first step to catching more salmon on great lakes rivers is to use the right gear.

Using a 7-foot general purpose rod to float fish for salmon, or to bottom bounce, or even to throw lures will only get you so far. Having a suitable rod and reel for the method that you want to use is very important because using the wrong rod will limit you and cause problems.

When fishing for salmon longer and stronger rods are the key and using reels that have a good smooth drag system is a big help.

Salmon anglers can use spinning reels that are suitable for big salmon, baitcasting reels, and Centerpin reels.

Even using the wrong float when float fishing will prevent you from catching fish so make sure you use floats that are meant for float fishing, and I will discuss this more below.

A simple thing like having a good river net for salmon is also important and will help you land the next giant salmon.

I discuss the best gear that good anglers use for each method below but for all the general-purpose river fishing gear like waders, boots, vests, packs, and even the bet release tools check out my page on Best River Fishing Gear.

Use The Right Methods For More Salmon

There are 4 effective methods for catching great lakes salmon in rivers.

The first and possibly the most effective method is float fishing followed by using lures, and then bottom bouncing is very effective in low water.

Lastly, there is fly fishing for salmon which can be very effective in many smaller great lakes rivers and creeks, and fly fishing for salmon can include fly fishing methods like nymph fishing, streamer fishing, and Spey fishing.

Float Fishing For Great Lakes Salmon

Float fishing is often the best way to catch salmon in most medium to large rivers.

Float fishing allows anglers to present a bait under a float in a controlled manner. Float fishing is the best method for both active and neutral active salmon.

Of the 4 methods that I use when salmon fishing I think that float fishing is the most effective way to catch salmon in most river types and sizes.

Float fishing well requires the use of the right rods and reels, lines that work for float fishing, proper floats, a great leader set up, and the right baits. I cover all of these things in greater detail on my page Float Fishing For Salmon.

Best Baits For Great Lakes Salmon Fishing

There are a lot of different baits that I use when fishing for Great Lakes salmon and I discuss how to use them for each method below.

Some of the best baits are the spawn bag, soft and hard trout beads, flies, and plastic worms. I discuss these and a total of 10 baits on my page the Best Baits For Salmon Fishing.

Fly Fishing For Great Lakes Salmon

In rivers that are 1 foot to 6 feet, deep fly fishing can be a very effective method. When salmon are in faster shallower water of 1 to 3 feet deep, I think fly fishing using my advanced nymphing techniques is the best method for catching salmon.

Nymph fishing for salmon is the method that I use the most and it works well in water from 1 foot up to 10 feet deep.

Streamer fishing for salmon is also productive at times. Streamer fishing for salmon is similar to casting lures. Casting lures can get large aggressive salmon to smash your fly hard and make for a very exciting experience.

Another method that is growing in popularity is Spey fishing and swinging flies for salmon. This is a similar method to streamer fishing without the erratic retrieve that you would use with streamer fishing.

I discuss all of these methods in great detail as well as my favorite salmon flies on my page Fly Fishing For Salmon.

Bottom Bouncing For Great Lakes Salmon

Bottom bouncing is a method that was popular in the 70’s and 80’s but was quickly overshadowed by float fishing.

The reason that many anglers switched to float fishing for salmon is due to the fact that float fishing is a superior method for catching salmon in bigger rivers and pools, however, there are times when the salmon are in shallow water, or fast water, or in pocket water and this is when bottom bouncing is the best method.

I have been using a method I call advanced bottom bouncing for steelhead and for salmon and it’s extremely effective in faster-moving water between 1 and 5 feet deep. It’s also very effective in pocket water.

To learn how to bottom bounce and to see how I do advanced bottom bouncing for steelhead and salmon check out my page on Bottom Bouncing.

Lure Fishing For Great Lakes Salmon

Lure fishing for salmon is another method that anglers love to do because it can be very productive and very exciting. The thrill of having a huge salmon smash a lure hard and then run and pull out hundreds of feet of line is hard to beat.

I recommend using a longer beefier rod of 8 to 10 feet with stronger lines of 12 to 14 pounds and with a spinning reel that can hold lots of line, and one that has a great drag system. A smooth drag is very important when fighting huge salmon in strong currents.

I like to use bright-colored lures that have a lot of action when they are reeled in slowly. Lures like spinners that make a lot of noise like spinners will also attract and work well on great lakes salmon.

The great thing with lure fishing is that you can use lures in fast water, slow water, deep water, and shallow water.

There are times when salmon will chase a lure a long way before they smash it and in some clear rivers you can see them coming and you can watch it all happen.

I discuss my favorite lures and my most effective tactics for catching salmon with lures on my page Lure Fishing For Salmon: Guide Tactics For More Salmon

When Do Great Lakes Salmon Run?

You may have got to the river and heard guys saying ” you should have been here 3 days ago” or ” they ran last week”.

Knowing when the salmon will run is a guide trick that allows me to get my clients into a lot more fish and it can really help you catch a lot more salmon. I watch the weather and the river flow charts to help me know when the runs should start.

The first thing you need to know is that the salmon runs on most great lakes rivers will occur in late August and will peak later in September and early October. What triggers the salmon runs are rains, water temperatures, and even winds.

On some rivers, large Chinook salmon might even enter the rivers in small numbers in July.

Atlantic salmon are also known to enter some rivers in June and July but will continue to enter some rivers in October.

Rains Trigger Salmon Runs

A Salmon that ran the river in high water
This river came up about 1 foot overnight and got a little off-colored and thousands of salmon started their run.

In very shallow rivers it will often take a big rain to raise the water levels up enough to first attract the salmon to that river, and then to get them to run up the river.

This is the easiest way to predict the salmon runs.

What happens is the salmon will stage off shore, which means they will start moving in closer to shore looking for their preferred river and this usually happens in August.

When the rivers are very low the river that enters the lake is slower and doesn’t go very far out into the lake. As the river waters rise the current will flow further out onto the lake and the further it flows the more fish will swim through that current and trigger a run. A river that only flows a few hundred yards will only attract so many fish but a strong current that flows a mile out into the lake will attract a lot more fish.

If that current is cold enough it will trigger more fish. If the water is too warm the salmon may not want to swim through it. That is why bigger rains later in September when the nights a colder will bring up a lot more fish and smart anglers and guides will make sure they are on the river that day or the next day. Combined with the urge to spawn higher water will bring in even more fish even if the water temps are not ideal.

I also watch the flow charts for the rivers to see how much the water actually went up. If the water goes up a lot that could mean a big run, but it can also mean the river might go muddy and that will make it tough fishing.

Temperatures Trigger Runs Of Salmon

On larger rivers that already have good higher flows out into the lake can often have runs of salmon that can come up at any time, however, the colder the nights get and the colder the river gets the more salmon will enter those rivers.

These larger rivers are harder to predict the runs and often small runs of fish could come in daily and for no reason, however, once the after cold nights and when water temps start to get into the low 60’s and high 50’s the salmon will run the rivers in larger numbers.

Winds Can Trigger Salmon Runs

I have seen the salmon run for no apparent reason, however, when you look closely at the conditions, sometimes that reason is simply just the direction and the strength of the wind.

Stronger winds coming offshore and out into the lake can push baitfish and the salmon further out which might mean the salmon won’t be able to detect the rivers, but strong winds blowing into shore can push those salmon closer to shore where they will find the flow of the river and that can trigger large runs of salmon.

Smart anglers in my area watch for these wind shifts and will hit the river that day and the next day with often good results.

Spawning Urges Trigger Salmon Runs

I have seen years when there are droughts and the rivers are super low and too warm but the salmon still need to run, so they do.

If the conditions are not suitable the salmon will stage close to the rivers for as long as they can and they will continue to school up in larger and larger numbers until the urge to spawn forces them to run up the rivers even in super low conditions. Once some start to go others will follow.

This is one scenario that is near impossible to predict but checking in with local tackle shops and other anglers can help you determine when the salmon are in.

Salmon Fishing Guides – Learn To Fish For Salmon

As a river guide, I know the value that a river guide can provide. A good guide will know when the salmon run, which methods are best to use, they will know where to fish, and they will teach you the right way which is a great lifetime investment.

I also know that there are some really crappy river guides so when I choose a guide for my company, or when I recommend a guide to anyone I choose them carefully.

I discuss the best guides for each area or state on my pages for salmon fishing per state.

Got A Question About How To Fish For Great Lakes Salmon?

If you have a question, comment, or suggestion for me or other anglers let me know in the comments section below. Please keep it related to how to fishing for great lakes salmon.

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